RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
All over the country, lawyers who defend poor people in criminal cases have been sharing their stories about painful budget cuts. After big layoffs, some federal public defenders have stopped taking new clients. In many states, the public defender system has operating in crisis for years. But some advocates for the poor have found a bright stopped in an unprecedented move by the Justice Department, which could have dramatic implications for the representation of indigent defendants.
NPR's Carrie Johnson has our story.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: At just 17 pages, the court filing from the U.S. Justice Department doesn't seem like a milestone. But lawyers there say the decision to weigh in on a case about the quality of indigent defense in two cities north of Seattle is nothing short of historic.
Jocelyn Samuels leads the DOJ civil rights unit.
JOCELYN SAMUELS: We are absolutely committed to the principle that every indigent person who is accused of a crime is entitled to his or her constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.
JOHNSON: Plaintiffs in the case say around the time they sued, the cities had just two part-time lawyers running 2,000 misdemeanor cases. The Justice Department didn't take a position on whether public defenders in those cities - Burlington and Mount Vernon, Washington - systematically deprived people of their Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel.
But if a judge finds those cities should be on the hook, justice lawyers urged the judge to appoint an independent monitor for public defender workloads, the first time ever in a federal case like this one.
SAMUELS: Jocelyn Samuels...
Independent monitors have provided an objective source for assessing accountability, for evaluating whether an entity is complying with the terms of a consent decree and for gaining community confidence in the fact that the reforms will take place in a systemic and effective way.
JOHNSON: For Andrew Cooley, who defends the two city governments in the case, there's no need for such an unprecedented step. The cities have hired a new law firm to handle defending poor people in misdemeanor cases and Cooley says they've already reduced heavy caseloads.
ANDREW COOLEY: And we just don't think they've shown that there was an imminent threat of irreparable harm, especially where we're meeting this new 400 case per lawyer limit, we are way ahead of any other city in Washington almost except for a couple, and so it's not in a situation where we're well outside the norms.
JOHNSON: Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, who sued on behalf of misdemeanor defendants, would disagree with that assessment. The ACLU didn't want to comment for this story while the litigation's underway. But in court papers, it says local defenders don't return phone calls, don't visit clients in jail and don't do any investigating for those clients.
Thomas Giovanni, a former public defender who now studies the issues at the Brennan Center for Justice, told an audience at the Law Library of Congress recently, that's a pattern.
THOMAS GIOVANNI: Many people are arrested, processed and plead before they see a defender at all. It's not right. And the state system is the main system by which we put people in cages in this country.
JOHNSON: Too often, ACLU lawyers say, the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington fail to oversee the system or make sure public defenders there are following the Constitution. That's something an independent monitor could do. But forcing the cities to pay for that kind of oversight could be counterproductive, according to their lawyer Andy Cooley.
COOLEY: They uh they operate a public defense system and a municipal court system only because we want to enforce our own local ordinances. And if this system becomes too expensive, we can just cancel court. We don't have to run a court. We don't have to run a public defense system. We can abrogate that to our local county and just have them take it over.
JOHNSON: Still, Cooley says he understands why this case has become a national issue.
COOLEY: The ruling will influence what hundreds of cities and local governments do just in Washington state. Whether it'll have the same impact outside of Washington isn't clear. But without a lot of federal guidance on this, I can't imagine it won't.
JOHNSON: That's why lots of people will be watching for the judge's decision this fall.
Carrie Johnson NPR News, Washington.
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